Archive for the Parker Category

‘Ask a Silly Queston’ by Donald E. Westlake

Posted in Book Review, Parker with tags , , , , , , on March 16, 2013 by davehurwitz

I’ve exercised my obsession with Caitlin R. Kiernan a great deal in the last few weeks.  The other author I can’t stop going on about is Richard Stark, creator of Parker, crime fiction’s toughest professional thief.  Stark’s appeal has always been something of a puzzle to me, as he depicts a society devoid of morality, populated by the weak and the venal.  Against this grimy backdrop, a near sociopath like Parker seems virtuous, if only in contrast.  Richard Stark is the most prolific pseudonym of Mystery Writers of America grandmaster Donald E. Westlake, a fact that seems unlikely to those who have read “both” authors. While Stark is the ultimate nihilist, much of Westlake’s work is gently humorous, even cosy.

Westlake’s antidote for Parker is John Dortmunder, a New York City thief who never seems to catch a break.  In movie adaptations, Dortmunder has been played by actors a various as George C. Scott, Robert Redford, and even Martin Lawrence, but I always picture him looking a bit like Fred Ward (who has not played Dortmunder, but has played Hoke Moseley), a perpetually aggrieved schlub.  Along with a cast of regular cronies, Dortmunder specializes in easy-seeming scores that invariably go sideways.  Dortmunder confronts these setbacks, not with the brutality of Parker, but with an outside-the-box cleverness all his own.  Of the fourteen Dormunder novels Westlake worte before his death, I have read the most recent five.  All of them were entertaining, light and funny in way Richard Stark never is.

A Charm Bracelet 'O Crime!Originally published in Playboy Magazine, “Ask a Silly Question” has a more permanent home in Thieves’ Dozen, a collection of Dortmunder stories that seems unlikely to ever go out of print.  (Westlake is a mainstay of public library mystery shelves as well.)  In this particular story, Dortmunder is on his way to a planning session at the O.J. Bar and Grill when he is kidnapped by a very polite, very wealthy, older man.  This unnamed individual has a problem, and he’s willing to pay Dortmunder to help him solve it.  In his younger years, the elegant man purchased a genuine Rodin bronze.  A recent divorce gave ownership to his ex-wife.  Unable to part with this treasure, the elegant man commissioned a fake, made by taking a mold of the original.  So far so good, but now the ex-wife is donating the fake to museum, an act which will certainly expose the fraud.  Now the elegant man wants to steal the fake while his ex-wife is abroad.  There’s just one problem.  The bronze statue weights more than five-hundred pounds.  Can Dortmunder pull off this heist without giving himself a hernia?  Will he actually get paid?  Will he ever make it to the backroom at the O.J.?  There’s only one way to find out.

Blurbs frequently describe the Dortmunder novels as “Runyonesque,” an adjective that is all but meaningless to me.  (Evidently it refers to Damon Runyon, who wrote humorous stories about NYC underworld characters in the days of Prohibition.)  If forced to pick a single adjective, I would choose something simple, like “fun.”  Though the Dortmunder novels and stories utilize the structure of grittier heist fiction, they contain a lot less violence and lot more dry humor and absurd situations.  I’ve always enjoyed bad ass action, but in recent years, the straight stuff has become a little hard to take.  I’m sure I’ll always be a Parker fan, but I’m becoming increasingly fond of Dortmunder.

Dave Hurwitz

Parker Movie Trailer Irks this Parker Fan

Posted in Cinema, Parker with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 2, 2012 by davehurwitz
It's moody.  It's iconic.  It's invisible on your web browser.

University of Chicago Press edition of The Hunter

Parker, the protagonist of Richard Stark’s novel The Hunter, is not a nice man.  He beats a prison guard to death to escape a California work camp.  He does this not because he’s serving a long sentence–he isn’t–but out of impatience.  Once free, he browbeats his admittedly traitorous wife into committing suicide.  He dumps her corpse in New York City’s Central Park, hiking up her skirts to make it look like a sex murder, then mutilates her face.  Later, he threatens and beats a prostitute into revealing the location of the man who walked off with his money.  Info in hand, he abandons the woman, leaving her at the mercy of the mob she just betrayed.  Next, Parker stakes out the mobster’s hotel by breaking into a hair salon across the way.  Finding a stylist still there, he ties her up and gags her.  When she asphyxiates and dies, he blames her death on his enemies.  Even when he’s killed the man who betrayed him, Parker, total bastard that he is, still isn’t satisfied.

While I’m a tremendous fan of the Parker books overall, even I have to admit that if I’d read The Hunter first, I would never have tried the rest of the series.  There are twenty-four books in total, twenty-eight if you count the four staring Parker’s more genial colleague, Alan Grofield), nearly all of which are heist novels.  These follow Parker and a rotating cast of other ‘operators’ through the planning and commission of a theft, along with the inevitable complications.  Many of these books allow Parker to display his finer qualities, such as they are.  He possesses a keen understanding of people’s psychological needs, needs he simply doesn’t share.  He dislikes unnecessary killing, not because of any moral stance, but because murders attract more law-enforcement attention than thefts.  Parker never betrays his fellow thieves, but is absolutely ruthless with operators who become greedy or erratic.

Parker reserves his nice manners for managing his victems.

Darwyn Cooke illustrates Parker’s smooth touch in his graphic novel adaptation of The Score

In The Hunter, Parker is nothing short of contemptible.  In later books he operates according to a code of conduct that might seem admirable if it weren’t entirely self-serving.  Just what attracts me to the series is hard to explain.  Whatever it is, Hollywood has occasionally fallen under the spell of Parker’s brutal appeal.

The quintessential Parker movie is John Boorman’s 1967 film Point Blank.  Lee Marvin plays Walker (Donald Westlake, a.k.a Richard Stark, never allowed the Parker name to be used during his lifetime) as a kind of emotionless force.  His quest to retrieve his money from the mob unfolds in all it’s meaningless glory.

Less successful was 1999’s Payback, another adaptation of The Hunter.  Mel Gibson, now called Porter, comes across as sort of puppy-eyed hardcase with a heart full of goo, who’s prone to irregular bursts of insane violence.  As the bodies drop, he goes out of his way to rescue the aforementioned prostitute.  Muddying the waters even further is Lucy Liu (who’s now cluttering up an otherwise serviceable Sherlock Holmes TV adaptation) as a comic-relief Asian gangster.

Jason Statham as Parker?  Well, if we must...

U. of Chicago’s movie tie-in edition of Flashfire

Now Hollywood is back at it.  January of 2013 will see the release of Parker (the Westlake estate allowed the use of the name) staring Jason Statham.  I’m willing to set aside Statham’s complete lack of resemblance to the character as described by Stark.  I’m more worried about other issues.  Though Parker’s new producers have dodged a bullet by not trying to adapt The Hunter yet again, the novel they picked–2000’s Flashfire–bears a remarkable similarity to Parker’s first outing.  After a successful score, members of Parker’s crew betray him and leave him for dead.  When he tracks them down, they’ve spent his loot setting up an even bigger job.  Of course, Parker isn’t leaving without his money.  Sound familiar?

Even more disturbing is Parker’s revised code of conduct, as mouthed by Statham in the recent trailer.  “I never steal from people who can’t afford it,” he rasps, “and I never hurt people who don’t deserve it.”  Sentiments Stark’s Parker would find laughable, or at least worthy of a fist in the face.  In a way, Hollywood’s efforts to soften Parker are understandable.  Most people don’t want to watch a movie featuring an uncommunicative sociopath, even if that’s how his die-hard fans would prefer it.  Let’s hope that, in their efforts to introduce Parker to a mass audience, Statham and company don’t undermine the very things that make this anti-hero so intriguing in the first place.

Dave Hurwitz

Gifts for Goths

Posted in Cinema, Parker, Rotten on December 6, 2009 by davehurwitz

That’s right, gentle readers, Black Friday has come and past.  Time to start thinking seriously about that holiday shopping you’ve been dreading.  Here at The Weekly Rot, we’d like to make that unpleasant task just a little bit easier.  Not sure what to get the horror junkie on your list?  Below are a few humble suggestions.

Thirst on DVD

Thirst DVD

The latest film from Korean auteur Chan-wook Park, creator the Vengeance Trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance).  Thirst is the story of Sang-hyeon, a Catholic priest who volunteers for a deadly series of vaccine trials.  The sole survivor of the experiment, Sang-hyeon emerges with a reputation for saintliness and thirst for human blood.  Insinuating himself into a family who believes in his miraculous powers, Sang-hyeon becomes infatuated with Tae-joo, the young wife of a man he has supposedly healed.  What follows could be described as a mash-up of Interview with a Vampire with The Postman Always Rings Twice, with a bit of The Ring and Rear Window thrown in for good measure.  Thirst is an epic, and not just because of its 133 minute running time.  Regular shifts of plot and tone lead the viewer to believe that Sang-hyeon really has lived a lifetime, from initial horror at his condition, to acceptance, through reckless abandon, and back to a much more weary horror.  His destruction, when it finally arrives, clearly comes as a relief.  As with all of Park’s work, there’s plenty of deeply disturbing, blackly humorous incident in between.  Highly recommended.

Ben Templesmith’s Dracula

The perfect gift for aspiring young Goths who haven’t yet graduated beyond Stephenie Meyer.  The unabridged text of Stoker’s 1897 novel with twenty-seven color illustrations by top horror comix artist Ben Templesmith (30 Days of Night, Wormwood: Gentleman Corpse, Welcome to Hoxford).  That’s one illustration for each and every chapter.  (Take that, Barry Moser.)  Templesmith’s work here (and elsewhere) is an eerie mix of scratchy pen, dark hued paint, and hazy digital overlays.  A distinctly modern edition of the Victorian classic.  I already own two editions of Dracula, but this book makes me want a third.  (I recommend on-line purchase for this one, as it not stocked at most book stores.)

Brides of Dracula

Richard Stark’s Parker:  The Hunter

Adapted and Illustrated by Darwyn Cooke.

Cooke's ParkerOkay, this isn’t so much a horror item as a noir item, but it’s still a worthy gift.  As regular readers are no doubt aware, I am something of a Richard Stark fanatic.  Even by my exacting standards, Cooke’s adaptation of the first Parker novel is incredibly faithful.  (Cooke even dresses his sets using décor described in the book.)  For once, Parker is allowed to be the brutal bastard he really is.  (It’s also worth noting that this is the only Stark adaptation to receive the author’s unconditional approval.  Neither of the two films based on the book was even allowed to use the name Parker.)  Better yet, the story is presented as a period piece, taking place in 1962, the year of the novel’s composition.  I was unfamiliar with Darwyn Cooke’s work prior to reading this, but his talent is evident here.  Utilizing only black, white, and a murky blue, Cooke’s panels look more like mid-century advertising art than a contemporary comic.  The design on the endpapers would look equally at home on the wall of a jet-age bachelor pad.  This book is a major artistic achievement, as well as a fine introduction to one of crime fiction’s greatest anti-heroes.

Stiff Kitten T-Shirt

You don’t have to be a fan of the sadly defunct band to enjoy the shirt.  C’mon, folks, it’s Zombie Hello Kitty.  What’s not to love?  (For those who care, Stiff Kitten was an alternative rock group out of Birmingham in the mid 90s.  The band fell apart when Stiff Kittenguitarist Keith Barry committed suicide after an argument with singer/bassist Daria Parker about Barry’s heroine use.  Parker is now a fixture on the lesbian folk circuit.)  Buy the shirt exclusively at Ziraxia.  It’s creepy.  It’s cute.  It’s Christmas.

Dave Hurwitz

The Roman Ritual

One more item needs to be added to this list. All through the 70s, 80s and 90s, I’ve yearned to reenact my favorite moments from The Exorcist—the film adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s novel. (The script was also written by Blatty. Having later read the actual text, the film is incredibly faithful.) Specifically the reading of the Roman Ritual to exorcise Regan.

Sadly, this text was a deep dark secret of the Catholic Church, which had wanted to sweep the whole exorcism thing under the carpet. Fortunately for us, all this changed on January 26, 1999. Pope John Paul II approved the document  De Exorcismus et supplicationibus quibusdam (actually back on October 1st). This paved the way for the official recognition of  “angelic creatures” and the aptly named creaures “who are opposed to God” (aka demons).

This new exorcism ritual replaces the 1614 version. Sadly, I have not yet found the phrase: “The power of Christ compels you.” The Second Vatican Council had been working on all the rituals for the last 30 years, with exorcism being the last on the docket.

You can find the Roman Ritual on eBay or Amazon or at your local Catholic store. Just make sure you get one marked with exorcism. The cost doesn’t get any cheaper than $65. Now go out and kick some demon butt.

Chris Kalidor

Bring Out Your Dead: Donald Westlake, Blossom Dearie, J. G. Ballard

Posted in Parker, Rotten with tags on April 27, 2009 by davehurwitz

I seemed to have turned a corner somewhere.  I can remember a time when it felt like I did nothing but attend weddings.  Now it’s funerals.  With no belief in the hereafter to gladden my heart, funerals only serve to drive home the message that someone I liked and cared about has been cut out of the world.  What’s more, a good memorial service displays every unguessed facet of the departed’s life.  The childhood I never saw.  The achievements I never heard of.  The other friends I never met until now.  I’m left with the uncomfortable feeling that I never knew the deceased at all, that I never asked the right questions, that I missed something, and I’ll never find it now.

Donald Westlake

Donald Westlake

Then there are the deaths I read about.  The ones that are not so much a personal loss as a ‘a loss to the jazz world’ or ‘a loss to literature.’  In this respect, the last four months have been pretty bad.  Mystery readers lost Donald Westlake (and his evil alter-ego, Richard Stark) on the last day of 2008.  I have written about Stark / Westlake previously, and that piece seems a more fitting tribute than anything I could do here.  While I never met Westlake or either of the people described below, I mourn their passing in small way.

Blossom Dearie
April 28, 1924 – February 7, 2009

If you’re my age, you’ve heard the voice of Blossom Dearie, whether you know it or not.  You heard it every Saturday morning, courtesy of Schoolhouse Rock.  Dearie was the voice (and piano) behind “Figure Eight” and “Unpack Your Adjectives.”  While Dearie often

Blossom Dearie

Blossom Dearie

asserted that her piano playing was superior to her vocal work, it’s her voice I most enjoy.  Girlish almost to the point of squeakiness, but tinged with a humorous cynicism, it brought a breezy sophistication to all of her songs.  Her mischievious streak frequently displayed itself in ironic show tunes like “To Keep My Love Alive” or “Always True to You in my Fashion.”  Before educating the masses via television, Dearie was a fixture of the late 50’s early 60’s jazz scene.  Though she went on to establish her own label, Daffodil Records, the recordings she made in those early years for Norman Granz at Verve (accompanied only by drums and an upright bass) are, in my opinion at least, her best.  My Gentelman Friend and Once Upon a Summertime are particular favorites, and either would make a good introduction to her work.  Dearie never retired, performing regular gigs in New York and London well into the new millennium.  I always hoped I’d be able to see her on stage, some day.  I never did.

J. G. Ballard
November 15, 1930 – April 19, 2009

Ballard has been called the inheritor of H. G. Wells, and I can see the similarities.  Both were concerned about the impact of technology on human beings, and both were unsympathetically observant of their protagonists’ shortcomings.  Still, I can’t help thinking that the oddly prudish Wells (oddly, that is, for an advocate of free love) would have been horrified by the comparison. 

J. G. Ballard

J. G. Ballard

Crash, Ballard’s most infamous novel (not to be confused with the tedious Paul Haggis film of 2004) deals with the sexuality of cars and car crashes.  Later works explored equally disturbing themes.  In both High Rise and Running Wild, homicidal psychosis erupts in posh gated communities.  The peaceful bird sanctuary of Rushing to Paradise devolves into a cult.  Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes investigate our psychological needs for crime and violence.  Ballard’s last two novels were so controversial that they received no U.S. publication, and I wound up ordering both from overseas.  Millennium People details an absurdist terrorist movement among London’s professional class.  In Kingdom Come, a postmodern ad campaign turns a suburban shopping mall into a fascist breakaway state.

Although Neil Gaiman recently described Ballard as “terrifyingly normal”  in person, his biography is fully as interesting as his books.  Born in British controlled Shanghai, Ballard spent part of his childhood in a Japanese internment camp during World War II.  Later, he abandoned the study of medicine to join London’s literary avant-garde, editing Ambit, the literary magazine founded by pediatrician Martin Bax.  In 1964, Ballard’s wife died unexpectedly of pneumonia (not, as myth and rumor would have it, in a car crash) leaving him to raise three children on his own.  His work has been filmed by directors as diverse as Steven Spielberg and David Cronenberg.  One final book, an account of his losing battle with cancer, has yet to be published.

In one respect, the deaths of artist are not so final as the deaths of others.  The University of Chicago, which began reprinting Westlake’s Parker novels last year, has accelerated its publishing schedule.  Two more, The Mourner and The Score, are out already, with an additional four to appear throughout the year.  Sadly, Daffodil Records seems to have closed its doors (or at least its Internet portals), but not before reissuing some of Dearie’s back catalog.  The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard, weighing in at twelve hundred pages, is slated for a September release by W. W. Norton.  Though none of these people will ever create anything new, there is a lot of their work that I still have yet to enjoy.  It’s not what I would choose, if such things were up to me, but it will have to do.

Dave Hurwitz

Richard Stark: The Hunter, The Man with the Getaway Face, and The Outfit (aka Donald Westlake)

Posted in Book Review, Parker with tags , , on September 20, 2008 by davehurwitz

I am a continual source of aggravation to my booksellers, the good people at Mysterious Galaxy.  Even at a store specializing in genre fiction, I often confound the staff by requesting books from obscure authors, strange imprints, and dubious small presses.  Most of the time, these are books that only I would be likely to pay good money for.  Once in a while, however, I come across something that other people will want, and a few extra copies get ordered along with my own.

A case in point are the University of Chicago Press reprints of the first three novels by Richard Stark:  The Hunter, The Man with the Getaway Face, and The Outfit.  Stark is the pseudonym and evil alter ego of Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Donald Westlake.  While Westlake writes noir and heist novels with a comic flavor, there’s nothing funny about Stark and his infamous creation, Parker.  This dangerous man is an “operator,” a professional thief, and his crimes, successful and otherwise, form Stark’s subject.  The Hunter is the basis for the classic John Boorman film Point Blank, as well as the less impressive Mel Gibson vehicle Payback.

My enjoyment of Stark’s work is hard to quantify.  For one thing, Parker is thoroughly amoral.  He follows a code of conduct:  Don’t burn your partners.  Don’t kill cops or civilians.  But the purpose of this code is to minimize trouble, and Parker follows it out of professionalism.  Parker deals harshly with betrayal, but is never the first to break the rules.  Apart from this, he is almost without personality.  He goes home to his companion, Claire, but I cannot imagine them relaxing on the sofa together.  Stylistically, Stark adheres to Elmore Leonard’s rules for writing stripped-down prose from which the author disappears.  Combine this with Parker’s lack of affect, and there is something positively Zen about a Stark novel.

So what’s the appeal, then?  In a review of the more recent Flashfire, the Wall Street Journal wrote, “The awful fascination in these Parker tales comes from knowing the protagonist will always do whatever is necessary to protect himself and to achieve his goals.  The tension comes from never knowing what might happen next.”  This isn’t exactly it, at least not for me.  Once you’ve read a couple of Parker novels, they become, frankly, fairly predicable.  So why do I still read them?

Part of it is pure pleasure in a heist story that takes itself seriously.  It’s impossible to go out to a caper movie these days without seeing George Clooney and Brad Pitt pulling off ludicrously elaborate scores and mugging for the camera.  Stark’s no frills narratives make an impressive contrast.  But the biggest part, the part the Wall Street Journal won’t admit to, is that every man secretly identifies with Parker.  Deep down, we all want to be the badass, the man who always gets what he wants, the man who doesn’t give a damn for the rules of society.  That’s who Parker is.  His blankness is a space the reader can inhabit, a safe and temporary sociopathy.

Stark has always had a cult following.  There is fierce competition on auction sites for his out of print titles.  I recently paid more than twenty dollars for a beaten-in mass-market copy of The Blackbird.  That’s why the U. of Chicago’s reprints are such good news.  According to Westlake’s official site, they plan to bring out three a year until the whole run is back in print.

In his most recent column for Entertainment weekly, horror god Stephen King names Stark as one of the best practitioners of “manfiction,” a term coined by King’s literary and biologic offspring Joe Hill.  Perhaps this, along with the attractive new reprints, will help win both Stark and Parker the larger audience they deserve.

Dave Hurwitz

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